This article was written by Charles F. Faber
The velocity of his fastballs earned him the nickname “The Hoosier Thunderbolt.” Amos Rusie played long before the invention of the radar gun, so we don’t know how fast his pitches were. John McGraw said of Rusie’s fastballs, “You can’t hit ’em if you can’t see ’em.”1 Sportswriters of the day claimed that batters were so terrified of being hit by Rusie’s pitches that they insisted the distance from the pitcher’s box to the plate be increased.2 As a pitcher for the New York Giants he was the biggest star on the biggest stage and he enjoyed life to the hilt.
Amos Wilson Rusie was born on May 30, 1871, in Mooresville, Morgan County, Indiana, a village about 20 miles southwest of Indianapolis. He was the second of the four children of Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Donovan and William Asbury Rusie. Amos’s father must have been quite a man. Born in Mooresville in 1847, he joined the 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry on December 18, 1863, at the age of 16. During the war he lost his left leg above the knee. Available military records do not identify the battle in which he was wounded, but it was probably in Georgia or the Carolinas.3 After his discharge William Rusie returned to Indiana and, despite the loss of his leg, worked for many years as a brick mason in Mooresville and Indianapolis. He died in a home for disabled veterans in 1925.
The Rusie family moved from Mooresville to Indianapolis during Amos’s childhood. At the age of 16 Amos dropped out of school to work in a variety of jobs, including one in a factory and one as a varnisher in an Indianapolis furniture store. After working hours and on Sundays the teenager played for a number of amateur or semipro teams in the Indianapolis area. At first he played only in the outfield. One day when he was with the Grand River club in the City League, the regular pitcher was knocked out of the box, and Rusie relieved him. He found the position where he belonged, and he never played in the outfield again.4 While pitching for an outfit called the Sturm Avenue Never Sweats in 1888, he shut out two touring National League clubs, the Boston Beaneaters and the Washington Nationals. After these stellar performances, John T. Brush, owner of the National League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers signed Rusie to a professional contract.5 At the start of the 1889 season, Frank Bancroft, manager of the Hoosiers, sent Rusie to Burlington, Iowa, for seasoning. He pitched four games for the Burlington Babies in the Central Inter-State League before being called up to Indianapolis. That was the extent of his minor-league career.
Amos Rusie made his major-league debut for the Hoosiers on May 9, 1889, at the age of 17. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound right-hander entered the game in relief of Jim Whitney in a 13-2 loss at Cleveland. He made his first start on June 15 at home as Indianapolis defeated Pittsburgh, 16-11. In his rookie season, he had a 12-10 record for the seventh-place Hoosiers. The Indianapolis club folded after the 1889 season. The National League distributed the Hoosiers players among other clubs in the league. Rusie was fortunate to be assigned to the New York Giants.
During his first month with the Giants, Rusie hooked up with Boston’s Kid Nichols at the Polo Grounds in one of the great pitching duels of all time. On May 12 the two young hurlers each held their opponents scoreless for 12 innings. Going into the 13th, each pitcher had allowed only three hits. The Giants had elected to bat first. With one out in the top of the 13th, Mike Tiernan hit a tremendous line drive that cleared the fence in the deepest part of the Polo Grounds. Rusie quickly set the Beaneaters down in the bottom of the frame to claim a 1-0 victory. The game has been honored as one of the 100 greatest games of the 19th century.6 Rusie became an instant celebrity in New York. Later he and Nichols were two of the three pitchers of the 1890s named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Cy Young was the other.)
Rusie’s star continued to shine brightly in New York. He won 29 games in 1890 and led the league in strikeouts. He started 62 games, pitched 56 complete games, and allowed the fewest hits per inning pitched of any hurler in the league. He also led the league in losses, walks, and wild pitches. He allowed 289 bases on balls, a major-league record that has never been broken and probably will never be approached. (The 208 walks given up by Bob Feller in 1938 is the closest to that number in the last 125 years.)
But it was Rusie’s strikeouts that caught the fancy of the public. His 341 strikeouts in 1890 were the most in the decade of the 1890s. Only Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, and Nolan Ryan have rung up more K’s in a season since then. Rusie said it was not easy. “It took a lot of pitchin’ to strike a man out in those days. The foul strike rule hadn’t come in. A guy had to miss three of ’em clean before he was out.”7
The Hoosier Thunderbolt became a sensation in the Big Apple. Restaurants named drinks after him, and vaudevilleans included skits about him in their acts. It was reported that Lillian Russell, the most famous Broadway star of the day, clamored to meet him. The young man lived it up. He enjoyed drinking and carousing in the big city, but the night life apparently did not interfere with his pitching. Sportswriter Sam Crane wrote, “Rusie went through his active pitching days as though on a continuous joy ride. He broke training whenever he felt like it and never looked upon life as a serious matter.”8
Rusie’s fastball was the stuff of legends. It was reputed to be the fastest pitch ever thrown up to that time. Outfielder Jimmy Ryan said, “Words fail to describe the speed with which Rusie sent the ball. … The giant simply drove the ball at you with the force of a cannon. It was like a white streak tearing past you.”9
Connie Mack, whose major-league career spanned more than 60 years, saw all of the great fastball pitchers from Rusie to Feller. He batted against some and managed against the others. “Rusie was the fastest without a doubt,” Mack said. “Maybe that is because I had to hit against him. And they looked like peas as they sailed by me. All I saw of them was what I heard when they went into the catcher’s mitt.”10
Dick Buckley, who had been Rusie’s catcher in both Indianapolis and New York, tried inserting into his glove a sheet of lead, covered with a handkerchief and a sponge, to cushion the impact of the fastball.11
On November 8, 1890, Rusie married Susie May Smith in Muncie, Indiana. They had a daughter, Jeannette, born in 1897. At age 19 and enjoying the high life in New York City, Rusie at first was perhaps not an ideal husband. On January 9, 1899, May filed for divorce. The couple reconciled temporarily, but little more than a year later May filed for divorce again. On May 9, 1900, the court awarded May her divorce. Amos was devastated. He promised to stay sober and behave himself and agreed to leave the Giants and settle down in Indiana permanently. May had detested living in New York and hated what she perceived the city was doing to her husband’s lifestyle.12 Less than three months later the couple married for the second time. Amos kept his word. This union lasted until May’s death on October 7, 1942.
In 1891 Rusie won 33 games, the first of four consecutive seasons in which the fireballer posted more than 30 victories. On July 31, 1891, Rusie pitched a no-hitter, shutting down Brooklyn, 6-0. It was the first no-hitter ever pitched by a New York hurler. Year after year he was atop the leader board.
The Hoosier Thunderbolt led the National League in strikeouts five times, in shutouts four times, and in bases on balls five times.
Rusie’s blazing fastball combined with his wildness intimidated batters. Some were so terrified at the prospect of being hit in the head by one of his thunderbolts that the league agreed in 1893 to move the pitcher’s box farther from the plate. The change from 55 feet to 60 feet 6 inches instituted in1893 was the last alteration in the configuration of the baseball diamond.
The change in the location of the pitcher’s box did not diminish Rusie’s effectiveness. Although his strikeout numbers decreased, he still led the league in that category in 1893 and each the next two seasons. In 1894 Rusie had a career-high 36 victories and won the pitcher’s Triple Crown by leading the National League in wins, strikeouts, and earned-run average.
At the end of the 1894 season William Temple, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, proposed that a postseason series be played between the top two finishers in the National League. He donated an $800 cup, the Temple Cup, to be awarded to the winner of the best-of seven-series. The Baltimore Orioles had won the pennant, with the Giants second. Sparked by the pitching of Rusie and Jouett Meekin, the Giants swept the Temple Cup series in four straight games. The Hoosier Thunderbolt won Games One and Three by identical scores of 4-1, giving up only two runs, one of which was unearned, for an ERA of 0.50. Meekin pitched a shutout in Game Two, winning 9-0, and wrapped up the series by winning Game Four, 16-3. Both pitchers threw complete games in their starts; no other Giants pitchers appeared in the series.13 A New York reporter wrote, “The alleged mighty hitters of the league’s pennant winners are but putty in the hands of Rusie and Meekin.”14
In the games of the Temple Cup series played at the Polo Grounds, which had no center-field fence, large crowds ringed the outfield. A rope was strung between posts to separate the fans from the playing field. Some patrons sat in carriages and viewed the game by looking over the heads of the standees.15 Other horse-drawn vehicles were left unattended on Eighth Avenue below the field. In the eighth inning of Game Three, one of the horses bolted, climbed up the embankment, smashed the buggy, and charged into people standing around the rope. The horse ran through the crowd, jumped over the ropes, and charged onto the playing field. It headed straight across the field toward Giants left fielder Eddie Burke. A reporter wrote, “Burke had shown the Polo Grounds patrons some pretty fast running in his time, but he never equaled the sprint he made to get under the left field bleachers.”16 The runaway horse was caught; Rusie resumed pitching and finished his 4-1 victory.
In 1895 Giants owner Andrew Freedman deducted $200 from Rusie’s pay. One hundred dollars was cut for allegedly being out after curfew one night and another hundred for “not trying hard enough” while pitching.17 An irate Rusie protested the fines. Two hundred dollars was a very large chunk out of his $3,000 salary. He told Freedman he would not sign a contract for 1896 unless the fines were restored. The owner refused. Rusie sat out the entire 1896 season. Represented by a famous baseball personality and attorney, John Montgomery Ward, Rusie sued Freedman for $5,000 and release from his Giants contract. Owners of other National League clubs, worried that the courts might invalidate the reserve clause, gave Rusie $5,000 to drop the suit. Rusie agreed. “That $5,000 I got for not playing was almost $2,000 more than I would have been paid for playing all season,” he said.18 He remained a Giant, and Freedman paid him $3,000 for 1897.
Batters’ fear of being hit by the Hoosier Thunderbolt’s pitches was justified. Baltimore’s Hughie Jennings, one of baseball’s top shortstops, was hit in the head by a Rusie fastball in 1897. He was unconscious for four days.19 Although he survived, his baseball-playing days were in jeopardy.
In 1898 Rusie suffered an injury that ended his effectiveness as a pitcher. He was pitching against the Chicago Cubs one day in August. Chicago’s speedy outfielder Bill Lange was on first base. Lange had led the National League in stolen bases the previous year. Although his productivity was down in 1898, due to physical and attitude problems, he was still a threat on the basepaths.20 Rusie resolved to pick the speedster off base. Instead of taking the usual step when throwing to a base, Rusie made a quick throw to first base without moving his feet. Something snapped in his shoulder. He got his out, but never regained his fastball. “My arm felt dead,” Rusie said. “I finished the game throwing floating curves. The following day saw the start of a parade of doctors. Each examined my arm. Each had a different diagnosis The x-ray was unknown then, so their job wasn’t an easy one.”21
Rusie took five weeks off. “When I returned to the firing line, my arm felt okay,” he said. “The zip in my fast one was still there; my curve crackled and snapped. For the rest of the season, everything was fine. But the following spring, when I tried to pitch, my arm felt dead. I took my turn on the hill, but every effort was followed by nights of torture, during which I walked the floor. So I had to hang up my glove.”22
More than 40 years after his injury, Rusie put his hand on his shoulder and told an interviewer, “Even today I’m often bothered by twinges of pain here.”23
After 1898 Rusie never won another game in the major leagues. He blamed his snap pickoff move for his downfall. He was quoted as saying, “I coulda lasted as long as Cy Young what with my strength and all. That’s what happens when you try to act smart.”24
The Hoosier Thunderbolt pitched nary a game in Organized Baseball in 1899 or 1900. He rested his arm for two years and used the time trying to repair his relationship with his estranged wife. On December 15, 1900, the New York Giants traded Rusie to the Cincinnati Reds for Christy Mathewson, in perhaps the most lopsided transaction in the entire history of baseball. One future Hall of Fame pitcher for another may not sound out of line, but it certainly was. Matty was a youngster on his way up; Rusie was all but finished as a pitcher. Mathewson went on to win 372 games for the Giants, the most any pitcher has ever won for any National League club. Rusie won no games for Cincinnati or anybody else.
At the time of the census in June 1900, Rusie was living with his widowed father in Indianapolis. The census taker listed him as a ballplayer, although he was playing no baseball that summer. May was living near Muncie with her brother Edward Smith. In less than two months Amos and May would be together again, this time ’til death did them part.
In 1901 Rusie started two games for the Reds and relieved in one. His record was 0-1, with an ERA of 8.59. He made his final major-league appearance on June 9, 1901, at the age of 30. The game was played at Cincinnati’s League Park against Rusie’s former team, the New York Giants. An overflow crowd of 17,000 fans surrounded the field and pushed toward the diamond. Balls that outfielders normally could have caught fell among the onlookers and went for two-base hits. In the bottom of the ninth inning the crowd overran the field and caused so much confusion that umpire Bob Emslie forfeited the game to the Giants.25 The Giants were leading 25-13 at the time, and that was recorded as the official score. (Forfeited games are usually scored 9-0, but if the home team is at fault and visiting team is leading the actual score is recorded.)
After he retired from baseball, Rusie returned to his native Indiana. He worked at a pulp and paper mill in Muncie until the mill closed. He then moved to Vincennes, Indiana, where he worked as a laborer. He also did some pearling, that is, hunting for pearls in mollusks retrieved from the Wabash River or other bodies of water in the area. According to his obituary in The Sporting News, Rusie worked as a ticket taker at a Seattle ballpark in 1907 and 1908, and as a bottle layer in a bottle factory in Olean, Illinois, in 1910, and umpired in the Northwestern League for two weeks in 1911. The obituary contains several inaccuracies. His actual whereabouts in 1910 cannot be ascertained. Neither he nor May can be located in 1910 census records released byAncestry.com. Nor can he be found in available city directories for that year.
It is known that in 1911 Amos and May moved to Seattle, where he worked for 10 years as a gas fitter for a lighting company and as a steamfitter in a shipyard.
In 1921 John McGraw, now the manager of the New York Giants, brought Rusie back to New York, where he worked as a night watchman and later as superintendent of grounds at the Polo Grounds. Did he like the job? Accounts vary. In a SABR book published in 1996, Richard Puff wrote that he enjoyed the position.26 Rusie’s obituary in the New York Times stated that he didn’t care much for the job.27 Living in New York was difficult for May. She was partly paralyzed from an undisclosed cause and confined to a wheelchair. The couple moved back to Washington State in 1929.
Perhaps with help from McGraw, Rusie purchased a chicken ranch in Auburn, Washington, but it failed during the Great Depression. In July 1934 he was injured in an automobile accident that left him unconscious for four days. He suffered a brain concussion and several broken ribs. Unable to work, he fell behind on his house payments. In February 1935 a notice appeared in the Seattle newspapers announcing the mortgage foreclosure of the 5-acre farm of Amos Rusie and wife in Auburn by the Home Owners Loan Corporation.
A moratorium loan on the little farm for $1,932.32 had been closed on November 29, 1933, and provided for interest payments of $8.05 in June 1934, and $17.87 monthly thereafter. Rusie was unable to make payments on the principal, interest, or taxes. The Rusies’ income consisted of a $35 pension paid monthly to Amos by the Association of Professional Ball Players of America and a $28-a-month old-age payment for May.28 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer instituted a fund-raising campaign. Although unable to prevent the foreclosure, the paper, assisted by The Sporting News, raised enough money to provide the Rusies with an income for the rest of their lives and a little house in which to live.29
Because of their declining health, the Rusies stayed in the house only a few years. Before 1940 they moved in with their daughter Jeannette and her husband, Clarence E. Spaulding, an upholsterer in a Seattle department store.
May died on October 7, 1942. Amos suffered from chronic myocarditis, and two months after May’s death, he died at Ballard General Hospital on December 6, 1942, at the age of 71. May and Amos were buried side-by-side in Acacia Memorial Park in the city of Lake Forest Park, just north of the Seattle city limits on the shores of Lake Washington.
In 1977 Rusie was elected by the Veterans Committee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The inscription on his plaque at Cooperstown reads:
AMOS WILSON RUSIE
“THE HOOSIER THUNDERBOLT”
INDIANAPOLIS N.L, NEW YORK N.L.,
CINCINNATI N.L. 1889-1895
1897-1898 AND 1901
GENERALLY CONSIDERED FIREBALL KING OF
NINETEENTH-CENTURY MOUNDSMEN. NOTCHED
BETTER THAN 240 VICTORIES IN TEN-YEAR
CAREER. ACHIEVED 30-VICTORY MARK FOUR
YEARS IN A ROW AND WON 20 OR MORE GAMES
EIGHT SUCCESSIVE YEARS. LED LEAGUE IN
STRIKEOUTS FIVE YEARS AND LED OR TIED
FOR MOST SHUTOUTS FIVE TIMES.
In addition to those cited in the Notes, the most useful sources included Ancestry.com and Baseball-Reference.com.
3 William Rusie was a private in Company C. See http://33rdindiana.org/roster/c/warusi.html.
4 The Sporting News, December 28, 1939: 5.
7 Charles F. Faber, Major League Careers Cut Short (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), 50.
10 The Sporting News, December 25, 1946: 5.
11 Puff, 143.
13 Tom Schott and Nick Peters, The Giants Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2003), 276.
14 New York World, October 7, 1894.
15 Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (New York: Walker, 2006), 150.
16 New York World, October 7, 1894.
19 John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 250.
20 Bill Lamb, “Bill Lange,” sabr.org/bio/proj.
21 The Sporting News, December 28, 1939: 5.
24 New York Times, December 7, 1942.
25 New York Times, June 10, 1901.
26 Puff, 144.
27 New York Times, December 7, 1942.
28 The Sporting News, April 15, 1937.
29 The Sporting News, June 3, 1937.